Students in geosciences courses at Franklin & Marshall College have seen the images in textbooks and slideshows: lava pouring into the ocean, producing clouds of steam along the coast. Massive volcanic craters. Igneous rock so smooth it resembles icing on a cake.
But as 14 students who traveled to Hawaii over spring break will tell you, it's quite another thing to feel the heat, smell the sulfur and witness stunning geologic processes in the shadow of majestic volcanoes.
F&M's Department of Earth & Environment organized a field trip to the Big Island of Hawaii March 9-16 for students to experience one of the most geologically active places on Earth. Led by Associate Professor of Geosciences Andy de Wet and Stan Mertzman, the College's Dr. Earl D. Stage and Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences, the trip introduced students to the geology of active volcanoes and the rich biodiversity characteristic of all the Hawaiian Islands.
"We got to have a hands-on experience in the most geologically interesting place in the world," said F&M student Nora Theodore '13, an environmental studies major and Rouse Scholar at the College. "Our textbooks came to life. Volcanism is no longer theoretical in our minds. We saw new crust being formed as lava made its way down to the ocean."
The group's whirlwind itinerary included visits to numerous landforms in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, from the Halema'uma'u Crater -- which glowed in the evening due to the lava -- to the caldera at the top of Mauna Ulu volcano. Hikes along smooth, solidified lava known as pahoehoe provided the students a crash course in viscosity (the thickness of lava).
"As a volcanologist, it was exciting for me that our students could see and understand what viscosity means," Mertzman said. "Viscosity is the thread that holds volcanology together. The more fluid lava is, the less dangerous it is. With more thickness, there's greater danger. Hawaii is the perfect place for our students to understand viscosity in a safe manner. The whole experience enhanced their intellectual curiosity."
Funding from the Department of Earth & Environment, including gifts from F&M geosciences alumni, made the trip possible.
"This is the kind of trip that can happen with alumni support," de Wet said. "Our students will remember this experience. There's an old saying that the best geologists are the ones who have been out in the field and seen the most rocks. We're fortunate that alumni helped make this happen for our students."
The group's hike to the top of Mauna Loa, a volcano more than 13,000 feet in elevation, was one highlight of the trip for Mike Zoeller '13. Zoeller particularly enjoyed seeing volcanic features he learned about in Mertzman's "Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology" class.
"It was striking to get a sense of the scale of the Hawaiian volcanoes. Photographs do not do them justice," said Zoeller, a geosciences and government double major. "Mauna Loa is so wide that it seems to take up half the sky…The massive scale of these volcanoes reminded us of the incredible energy required to build them over relatively short periods of geologic time."
The day after climbing Mauna Loa, the group ventured to the top of Mauna Kea, a similarly tall volcano and home to a collection of world-famous telescopes. The faculty members and students were treated to an impromptu tour of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope from Derrick Salmon, the telescope's director. "We were all flabbergasted that he was so incredibly generous with his time for a group that ended up on his doorstep completely unannounced," Mertzman said.
On making the journey to the summit of both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, Zoeller said: "How many people can say they reached the top of two of the world's largest volcanoes on back-to-back days?"
Theodore said she remains fascinated by the beauty of the mineral composition of the various rocks she saw, and the newness of the landforms.
"Volcanoes are reminders that although humans have altered the landscape in almost every way imaginable, primordial forces are still very much at work," she said.
The Department of Earth & Environment has organized similar excursions for students in recent years to Costa Rica, San Salvador, Puerto Rico and the Grand Canyon. Information about those trips and others is available online.
Photos courtesy of Andy de Wet and Stan Mertzman